Gatekeeper to routes of life-changing experience

12th January 2001 at 00:00
In a new series of monthly interviews with key people in education, Julie Morrice talks to Edinburgh's Mary McGookin

Edinburgh, the dour, rigid, cold-shouldering city, has changed. Princes Street in the weeks around Christmas is dominated by a whirling Ferris wheel and a temporary ice-rink; frivolity personified. The capital which famously went into cultural hibernation after each year's International Festival, is now a year-round party of arts and leisure events.

The sea-change in political thinking on the arts and entertainment is not unique to Edinburgh but it was one of the first cities to give the arts a place in the boardroom, with the establishment by Lothian Region Council in 1992 of an arts unit as part of the education department.

More than eight years on, there are few young people in the city who have escaped the reach of the arts unit's magic wand. Whether it is 4,500 children filling the Usher Hall twice in one day for a performance of Peter and the Wolf, or a sculptor working with a small group in a community centre, the chances are that the unit has had a hand in organising, funding or facilitating the arts events that enliven young people's lives.

Mary McGookin, head of the arts unit since its inception, is passionate about what she does. One colleague describes her, admiringly, as "a woman with principles". The twin foundations of her policy are access and quality: young people should have access to a wide range of arts, from grand opera to popular culture, both in and out of school, and the quality of their experience should be of the highest.

"The arts can provide a route to so many aspects of development, and there is also the chance of that life-changing experience," she says.

Ms McGookin, who spends much of her day in a sea of reports and meetings, keeps a firm hold on the importance of her job. "I don't like speaking about agendas," she says. "It's down to one child's or adult's experience. The best evidence is what we see and hear. If young people say they've enjoyed something, they've grown through it. That is what matters."

Her proudest success was in the look on the faces of a group of young people who gave a presentation on social inclusion at a recent Edinburgh conference. Having told their own stories to the massed delegates, their sense of achievement was a palpable delight to her. "If you've been involved with the arts you know that feeling and you want everyone to have it. You stand there and you know who you are and that you've achieved something."

Having trained as a singer and pianist at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Ms McGookin found the rewards of music went beyond the persona pleasure of performance. "Music allowed so much more to happen to me. It gave me the opportunity to conduct, to be an accompanist and, as a teacher, to see what happened when a child participated in something that really involved them. It allowed them to achieve, and for some of them it was the first time they felt they had ever really achieved anything."

As principal teacher of music at Broughton High, the City of Edinburgh Music School, she taught across the whole range of ages and abilities, while in her "other life" her interest in traditional Scottish music brought her into contact with a broader range of arts, particularly literature.

The arts unit is the obvious place for a woman who embodies the partnership between the arts and education and whose inclusive concept of what the arts are is communicated with a rare combination of passion and good sense.

Ms McGookin is a team player. She often refers to the importance of the political support that the arts enjoy in Edinburgh and talks enthusiastically of the "creative dialogue" between the unit and arts organisations. She visualises the unit as a cog in a great system, forging partnerships between schools, community centres, arts companies and practitioners, and supporting the work of colleagues within the council and that of specialist teachers and classroom teachers.

She is proud of Edinburgh's achievement in keeping free instrumental tuition in schools and she feels it is a strength that every Scottish school has expressive arts as part of its curriculum.

Edinburgh may be her focus, but the national picture is part of her thinking too. The Scottish Arts Council cites the arts unit as a model for the Links education officer posts which are improving access to the arts in many parts of the country, and Ms McGookin is aware of the need to inform the national debate. She feels community education has an important role to play in reaching young people and the arts unit is beginning to work with designated community education workers.

She hopes that arts unit funding for education projects can be made on a three-year basis in the future, removing some of the uncertainty and planning difficulties that short-term funding brings for arts organisations.

She enthuses about the opportunities available in a city where the International Festival, the Children's Festival, Scottish Ballet, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the multicultural Mela festival and many more ventures are available to work with young people, in or out of school, on projects.

"I am fortunate," she says, "to have some of the world's best artists working in a real way with children. That is very exciting."

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